Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom reflects on living with ambiguity
How do we live the fullest possible life during our time on earth?
It would be tempting to respond with the obvious answers: good relationships; earning enough money to make us comfortable and content; finding happiness by having fun; being successful at school and then in a career.
This term I’ll be reflecting on how we can get beyond superficial answers to something a little deeper, and today I consider the unlikely idea that if we want to live a fuller, deeper life we need to learn to live with ambiguity.
Learning to live with ambiguity is all about accepting that life is not as straightforward as we’d like, that uncertainties about the nature of the universe and how we live in it are inevitable. Humans are not so keen on uncertainty; we like things to be straightforward. We want to say, ‘it’s right’ or ‘it’s wrong’, ‘it’s good’ or ‘it’s bad’, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t’… but it’s never quite as simple as we want it to be. The universe is more ambiguous.
The Jungian analyst James Hollis said this: ‘As a species, we ill tolerate ambiguity, contradiction, or whatever proves uncomfortable, and that is what makes the anxiety-fuelled “fundamentalist” in each of us take over from time to time.’ In other words, ambiguity makes us uncomfortable, so often we retreat into creating certainties where in fact there are none.
That’s what any sort of fundamentalism does, whether it’s religious or non-religious: it creates a worldview full of certainty so that those who hold it don’t have to live with the uncomfortable nature of ambiguity. In the recent appalling terror attacks we’ve heard about in the news – whether non-religiously motivated as in New Zealand, or religiously as in Sri Lanka – what lies behind such atrocities is individuals or communities who can’t live with ambiguity. They can’t live with it to such a degree that they have to create a narrative that says their view is the one right view. They are willing to kill and even die for that view.
People often think that if you have a religious faith, then you are likely to be full of certainty: they assume that people with faith think they have all the right answers, that they have everything buttoned up nicely. That, of course, is how it is for many religious believers. But I think that real faith involves both wrestling with doubts and an acceptance that God and the universe are full of mystery. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s certainty. Matthew’s Gospel reports a scene after Jesus’ death and resurrection, in which he gathered his followers onto a mountain where they worshipped him, but it includes this note: ‘but some doubted’. It’s right there within the pages of the Bible: doubt is natural, it’s part of faith and an appropriate response to the mystery of the universe we live in. Faith is an invitation to mystery.
But this is about far more than matters of faith. Everyone struggles with the ambiguity of the universe. We don’t like uncertainties, so we create fixed ideas which make us feel more secure. In politics, for example, people become so entrenched in their political ideology that they can’t see the value in what their opponents say or hear any opposing view. Or sometimes people are so convinced by the potential of science that they think it can answer every question, including those outside the scientific domain: meaning, purpose and the nature of existence. Indeed, one of the greatest threats to scientific advance is when people become so fixed on one particular model they aren’t willing to discover something new and include new evidence.
The inventor of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison, said, ‘We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.’ That’s someone who knew how to live with ambiguity and respect the mystery of the universe.
Perhaps, however, unwillingness to live with ambiguity is actually most dangerous in our relationships with others. We can be tempted to label others either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, when actually the truth is never so simple. We can easily write other people off, thinking that we know the whole story about them. Or, we can put people up on a pedestal, thinking that they can do no wrong, when in fact they are much more complex. The truth is that all of us are a mixture, not one of us is perfect, we all have good bits and bad bits.
So, if we want to live a more considered life, we might start by realising that we need to live with ambiguity. Certainty just stops us from asking questions, it shuts us down – whether that’s in religion, science or politics or any other domain… but being able to tolerate ambiguity leads us into a greater fullness of life. It means that we will look at the world and other people with a much greater sense of wonder, embracing the mysterious nature of the universe we live in. Being able to live with ambiguity calls us to a larger life.
There’s a story that one day the devil went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the ground. ‘What did that man find?’ asked the friend. ‘A piece of truth,’ said the devil. ‘Doesn’t that disturb you?’ asked the friend. ‘No,’ said the devil. ‘I shall let him make a belief out of it.’